Why Obama’s March on Washington Failed

This week’s “I Have a Dream” commemoration was poignant, inspiring — and full of missed opportunities.

President Barack Obama speaks during the Let Freedom Ring ceremony on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The bell at left rang at the 16th St Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. which was bombed 18 days after the March On Washington killing four young girls. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
National Journal
Matthew Cooper
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Matthew Cooper
Aug. 29, 2013, 10:58 a.m.

Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr. nev­er had any cor­por­ate spon­sors. But the pro­gram for the 50th an­niversary com­mem­or­a­tion of the 1963 March on Wash­ing­ton was re­plete with “ap­pre­ci­ation” for AT&T, Ex­xon Mo­bil, and Tar­get. The half-cen­tury old march was a de­mand for gov­ern­ment ac­tion, so politi­cians were miss­ing from the po­di­um. This time, three pres­id­ents be­strode the dais. And while 1963 had the mu­sic of res­ist­ance — cour­tesy of Bob Dylan and Ma­halia Jack­son — the re­union tour fea­tured LeAnn Rimes, glor­i­ous gos­pel, and even a per­form­ance by Maori tribes­men whose Haka, or war dance, seemed any­thing but non­vi­ol­ent.

Des­pite the odd sta­ging, it’s hard not to be touched by Wed­nes­day’s gath­er­ing on the Na­tion­al Mall — not only be­cause of the di­vine mo­ment it com­mem­or­ates but also be­cause it is sol­emn and stir­ring when tens of thou­sands of Amer­ic­ans aban­don their malls and of­fice parks to ask for an ex­ten­sion of polit­ic­al rights. (In that way, at least, the March for Life is just as poignant.) So, cel­eb­rate the cel­eb­ra­tion.

Still, the day also seemed marked by lost op­por­tun­it­ies. It was nev­er go­ing to live up to the 1963 march; even Pres­id­ent Obama ac­know­ledged that, say­ing “we may nev­er du­plic­ate the swell­ing crowds and dazzling pro­ces­sions of that day so long ago.” But the griev­ances this time were ill defined and most speeches were a pro­ces­sion of pre­dict­able we’ve-come-so-far-but-have-so-far-to-go re­marks that could have been said in 1973 (and, alas, will prob­ably be re­peated in 2053). As ad­mir­able and in­spir­ing as it was at times, the day’s short­com­ings show what chal­lenges mod­ern protest move­ments face — and the op­por­tun­it­ies they can still seize.

First, this week’s event fell in­to the rare un­en­vi­able niche of speeches com­mem­or­at­ing speeches. It’s little re­membered now but there was also a 20th An­niversary March on Wash­ing­ton that aimed to crush Re­agan­ism. (It didn’t work out so well.) Lin­coln’s Gettys­burg ad­dress begat woe­fully in­ad­equate an­niversary speeches. The one Woo­drow Wilson gave for the 50th an­niversary, for in­stance, was a rhet­or­ic­al dud and a fant­ast­ic­ally ob­tuse cel­eb­ra­tion of post-Civil-War pro­gress. He was only ap­plauded twice. The New York Times called it “a trifle aca­dem­ic.” Even FDR, who gave two big speeches at Gettys­burg, didn’t de­liv­er any­thing very mem­or­able. Who could?

This week’s march had the po­ten­tial to im­prove on those mid­dling re­mem­brances. Forest Whi­taker’s touch­ing talk about love and John Lewis’ Bib­lic­al re­tell­ing of life un­der Jim Crow were high points. But for the most part, the con­voy of short speeches had a cer­tain rote qual­ity. Many took ob­lig­at­ory shots at stop and frisk — an anti-crime tac­tic that’s odi­ous but not Jim Crow — but po­lice, backed by courts, are not about aban­don a lib­er­al in­ter­pret­a­tion of prob­able cause. There were lots of jus­ti­fi­able com­plaints about the pro­lif­er­a­tion of voter ID laws and the Su­preme Court de­cision cur­tail­ing a key sec­tion of the Vot­ing Rights Act — but no talk of how to pres­sure Con­gress to re­spond. Bill Clin­ton took a well-aimed swipe at con­gres­sion­al grid­lock, but he oddly ig­nored fili­buster ab­use, a phe­nomen­on that links King’s time and ours. Once de­ployed (un­suc­cess­fully) against the great civil rights le­gis­la­tion, it is now used for just about everything but a foot powder. And one of the fast­est wa­ters­lides to poverty, teen­age preg­nancy for Amer­ic­ans of all races, didn’t mer­it at­ten­tion.

Maybe the biggest les­son of the day is that some of the greatest so­cial trans­form­a­tions of re­cent times haven’t been fueled by marches. In some ways, the same-sex mar­riage move­ment echoed the civil rights move­ment in the 40s and 50s (leg­al chal­lenges and polit­ic­al ac­tion were twin tools) but de­ployed di­git­al-era speed. But the same-sex cause has had less to do with mass marches — though rain­bow ral­lies are fa­mil­i­ar enough — and more with un­flinch­ing per­sua­sion with which gays ar­gued, like King, that all they wanted was to be part of the Amer­ic­an fam­ily. Just as King brushed back calls from white mod­er­ates who asked “when will you be sat­is­fied,” gays de­clined to ac­cept the half-meas­ures, like civil uni­ons, offered by their os­tens­ible al­lies.

An­oth­er so­cial over­haul owes noth­ing at all to pro­test­ers. The Sur­geon Gen­er­al’s famed anti-smoking re­port came a year after the March on Wash­ing­ton. With­in a gen­er­a­tion, smoking among adults had fallen by half, from over 40 per­cent of adults to un­der 20 per­cent of adults. Win­ning hearts and minds came from a com­bin­a­tion of policies, lit­ig­a­tion, and the ex­er­cise of the rights of nonsmokers against en­trenched power.

Obama seems to be at a cross­roads. He set out to change Wash­ing­ton and, fam­ously, ran in­to a phalanx of ob­struc­tion­ism and his own mis­takes. He used his speech es­sen­tially to call for re­in­force­ments, not­ing that the march wasn’t just about King and the lead­ers but about the every­day Amer­ic­ans — “seam­stresses and steel­works,” he said — who set out to­ward Wash­ing­ton that day. Time’s run­ning out for him to har­ness today’s crowd, a throng with few­er suits and ties than 50 years ago, with more turbans and hijabs. He needs them even if the march­ing or­ders are less clear.

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